Sections:  Introduction | Gordon Strong | Lake Tahoe | Doheny Ranch | Johnson Desert Compound | San Marcos

A. M. Johnson Desert Compound, Grapevine Canyon, California, 1924

As he takes the trail across the great Western deserts - he may see his buildings rising in simplicity and majesty from their floors of gleaming sand - where organic life is still struggling for a bare existence. 1928

Wright's design for the A.M. Johnson desert compound records his response to the American desert. It was his first major proposal for such a setting, initiating unending fascination with similar locales. Albert Mussey Johnson (1872-1948) was one of America's fabled rich. Johnson's interest in the desert had been aroused by 1905, when his mining interests led him to explore Death Valley with the ever-optimistic prospector Walter E. Scott (1872-1954), better known as "Death Valley Scotty."

By early 1924, Johnson had acquired some 1,500 acres bordering the northeast corner of Death Valley, along Grapevine Canyon, and had built a permanent camp as a retreat from his Chicago office. That year, Johnson contacted Wright regarding the design of a new Chicago headquarters for his National Life Insurance Company. In late February, Wright accompanied Johnson on an automobile excursion to the Grapevine Canyon site, partly, no doubt, to discuss the National Life commission.

While the commission for National Life was real indeed, there are no records to suggest that Wright's proposal for Johnson's desert compound was the result of any formal agreement. It is certain that Johnson had determined to enlarge his camp, and local newspaper accounts acknowledged Wright's early involvement, yet ultimately nothing designed by Wright was built. Surviving drawings - relatively few in number and rough of finish - suggest that Wright again attempted to enlist a client's interest through tantalizing glimpses of what might be.

Wright proposed a new approach to the compound along a slightly raised roadway that led across fields irrigated by strongly patterned channels. As rendered, this road led through the wall itself and on to a circular fountain at the back, where it ramped around and up to the higher elevation of the house above. There it was to continue under a bridge linking upper levels of the house and out onto a platform projecting into the valley. It seems as if Wright had reconsidered the concept of a Japanese stroll garden, with a planned sequence of framed views enlarged to vehicular scale. Mobility appropriate to the twentieth century had been elevated from mere convenience to experiential art.

Bordering the edges of the house, other terraces establish a clear geometric boundary between planned and unplanned. Their shapes amplify natural features of the setting without imitation, signaling sympathetic intervention. The gentle slopes near the front retaining walls, for example, recall Death Valley's gravel "fans", and like those fans help establish a sense of unity at vast scale.

Hypothetical study model of the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound

In constructing the model, it became apparent that not only the new terraces but portions of the seemingly natural slopes along the front walls would need to have been formed artificially. Creating the terraced enclosures along the back of the compound and shaping the circular roadway around the fountain would have required significant cutting of the earth, as Wright indicated on preliminary sketches.

These cuts would have produced the earthen fill for the banked effects Wright proposed. The basic elements of Wright's proposal - roadways, cultivated fields, extensive retaining walls, terraces defined by changes of level, and a new dwelling anchoring one end of the enclave - remained essentially unchanged during the course of his work on the project.

Locations could be partly determined by the existing buildings that he incorporated into his design. The dwelling was developed in greater detail than the other components, facilitating its construction in model form. Site plans were less complete, but aerial perspectives helped in understanding Wright's developing concept. As completed, the model reflects a composite study of this diverse evidence, suggesting - as an architect's study might - an idea not yet fully developed.

Hypothetical study model of the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Basswood and birch, 1995-96. Scale: 1 inch = 50 feet (area represented: approximately 1/2 mile by 1/2 mile). Created for the exhibition by George Ranalli, architect, with Aaron McDonald and Julie Shurtz, model makers (75)

Roadmap showing the proposed location of the A. M. Johnson Desert Compound, Grapevine Canyon, California

 

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Roadmap showing the proposed location of the A. M. Johnson Desert Compound, Grapevine Canyon, California. Rand McNally Official 1923 Auto Trails Map, District Number 16, Central and Southern California, Southern Nevada.(Chicago: Rand McNally, 1923). Photolithograph. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (76)

Aerial views of Death Valley and Grapevine Canyon, California

 

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Aerial views of Death Valley and Grapevine Canyon, California. Spence Air Photos. Copyright deposit, 1936 (negative exposed), modern print from copy negative. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (150)

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Preliminary Sketches

In preliminary sketches made directly on photographs of the extensive site, Wright developed a series of vast, terraced enclosures that gave visible form to an otherwise undefined expanse. Stretching nearly a thousand feet across the edge of the valley, corbelled walls of concrete block were to unify disparate hills into a single composition.

The camp's existing buildings were to be incorporated, as were new roadways and extensive fountains. At one end of the compound a new house was to be erected, angled to provide stunning views toward Death Valley and elevated to intensify an extraordinary sense of arrival.

Sketch perspective on photograph for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound

The pyramidal roof over one portion of the house - presumably corbelled like the walls - rises prominently to the left. Its profile corresponds to an element shown in the foreground of the Doheny panorama.

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  • Sketch perspective on photograph for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on gelatin silver print, 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (63)

  • Sketch perspective on photograph for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on gelatin silver print, 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (64)

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Perspectives, Elevation and Plan

Wright proposed a new approach to the compound along a slightly raised roadway that led across fields irrigated by strongly patterned channels. As rendered, this road led through the wall itself and on to a circular fountain at the back, where it continues around and up to the higher elevation of the house above. There it was to continue under a bridge linking upper levels of the house and out onto a platform projecting into the valley.

It seems as if Wright had reconsidered the concept of a Japanese stroll garden, with a planned sequence of framed views enlarged to vehicular scale. Mobility appropriate to the twentieth century was elevated from mere convenience to experiential art.

Bordering the edges of the house, other terraces establish a clear geometric boundary between planned and unplanned. Their shapes amplify natural features of the setting without imitation, signaling sympathetic intervention. The gentle slopes near the front retaining walls, for example, recall Death Valley's gravel "fans," and like those fans help establish a sense of unity at vast scale.

Aerial perspective for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound

... in the stony bonework of the Earth, the principles that shaped stone as it lies, or as it rises and remains to be sculptured by winds and tide - there sleep forms and styles enough for all the ages. 1928

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  • Aerial perspective for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1924. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift, Donald D. Walker, 1986 (65)

  • Aerial perspective for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (66)

Elevation for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound

 

Elevation for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on Japanese paper, 1924. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift, Donald D. Walker, 1986 (68)

Site plan for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound

While this drawing appears to precede the more developed aerial perspectives, the locations of the principal elements remain unchanged. The existing buildings are indicated as rectangular elements within the central portion of the composition, separated by the main roadway that leads through the wall then continues up and around the circular fountain to the raised terrace of the new house above, shown to the left. An extension of the roadway - barely suggested in this drawing - is shown with greater detail in developed plans for the house. It would have provided a dramatic overlook back down the canyon.

Site plan for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (67)

Plan and elevation studies for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound

 

Plan and elevation studies for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (69)

Elevation showing bridge for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound

Wright planned the house with an upper level bridging over rooms and roadways below; an automobile sketched in Wright's hand is shown under one of these elements.

Elevation showing bridge for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (70)

Plan, section, and elevation studies for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound

In this version, the hierarchy of roof heights is reversed from that shown in the more finished drawings, with the roof over the living area higher than the corresponding roof over the octagonal element at the right.

Plan, section, and elevation studies for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper,1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (71)

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Proposed Dwelling

Sketches indicate a tall octagonal element - shown sometimes as a chapel, sometimes as a library - that would have acted as a pivot within the composition. Dramatically placed near the formal entrance gate, it joined the angled house to the more extensive wings of guest accommodations, service buildings, and interlocking courts stretching across lower slopes of bordering mountains.

Corbelled construction would have produced striking profiles of sloping walls and triangular openings. Johnson thought the overall effect too sepulchral, and, fearful of its ultimate cost, turned to another architect. The fragmented, far less distinguished compound he ultimately built is known today as Scotty's Castle.

Section showing furniture for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound

Bridges extend across the living area below and link the upper portion of the volume to the octagonal element at the right.

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Section showing furniture for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1924. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Death Valley National Park, California (73)

Elevation for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound

In this more finished version of the house, the battered walls and corbelled openings are prominently featured, and the spire - presumably copper-faced like the roofs - is developed in the manner of a flèche.

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Elevation for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper , 1924. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Death Valley National Park, California (72)

Lower level plan of dwelling for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound

Extensive terraces - some developed for automobiles - define outer edges of the development. The service wing at the back would have been partly excavated into the hill rising behind.

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Lower level plan of dwelling for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1924. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Death Valley National Park, California (74)

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Martin Sachse House, Deep Springs, California, 1924

A.M. Johnson and Wright stopped at Deep Springs College in March 1924 while motoring to Johnson's camp in Grapevine Canyon. Located in a high desert valley several miles north of Death Valley but almost equally remote, the college had been founded in 1917 by L.L. Nunn, a colleague of Johnson's who had enlisted his backing. Wright was asked to design a small house for Martin Sachse, a master mechanic who worked for the college.

Wright's design for the Sachse house forms a link between his cubic Los Angeles houses and the more expansive designs for desert settings that would follow. Drawings with extensive notations in Wright's hand indicate conventional wood-frame construction with a stucco finish; collogued tiles in white mastic would have enlivened its stepped upper planes. Low-walled "compounds" shown on the plan and suggested in the elevation and perspective establish an area of arranged desert plantings distinct from the surrounding wilds.

Perspective for the Martin Sachse house, Deep Springs, California

 

Perspective for the Martin Sachse house, Deep Springs, California. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (77)

Elevation for the Martin Sachse house, Deep Springs, California

 

Elevation for the Martin Sachse house, Deep Springs, California. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (78)

Plan for the Martin Sachse house, Deep Springs, California

 

Plan for the Martin Sachse house, Deep Springs, California. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (79)

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Desert Dwelling for Frank Lloyd Wright, C. 1924

Two surviving drawings in Wright's hand that he later identified as a desert dwelling for himself (and dated 1921) are now assumed to have been done in conjunction with his design for the A.M. Johnson Desert Compound. He might have planned the studio as a personal retreat to be located on part of Johnson's ranch, but this is speculation.

Drawings indicate concrete block construction, with corbelled courses creating angled effects similar to the much larger Johnson compound. Wright labeled the major space a "cool patio"; octagonal in shape, it was to contain a circular pool at its centre with an oculus in the ceiling above. He designed similar atria in at least two later designs for desert settings: the Owen D. Young house (part of the unbuilt San Marcos project, 1928 - 29; gallery 4), and the Harold C. Price house (built; Paradise Valley, Arizona, 1954).

Elevation for a desert dwelling for Frank Lloyd Wright

 

Elevation for a desert dwelling for Frank Lloyd Wright. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (80)

Plan for a desert dwelling for Frank Lloyd Wright

 

Plan for a desert dwelling for Frank Lloyd Wright. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, ca. 1924. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (81)

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Sections:  Introduction | Gordon Strong | Lake Tahoe | Doheny Ranch | Johnson Desert Compound | San Marcos